I used to be a “frigid” wife.
I knew even before I got married that I wouldn’t be able to keep up the “schedule” of sex my husband and I had established during our courtship, and once I even warned him that it was going to have to slow down. But I think that went in one ear and out the other at supersonic speed, touching nothing in between.
Sure enough, not long after we got married sex became a battleground for us, and we struggled with the problem like two fish flopping around next to each other in the bottom of an open boat: gasping for a natural breath and injuring ourselves with every pointless, ineffectual spasm.
To me it seemed simple: he wanted me to be his sexual appliance, a handy-dandy love machine that could be switched on and off at his command. I felt no desire, and I didn’t want to “submit” to being handled and penetrated when I wasn’t in the mood. If he really loved me, this sex thing, this “merely physical” part of our lives, wouldn’t be such a big freakin’ deal. And his pissy, furious responses to my refusals only made me more sure that he didn’t really love me. He just wanted to use my vagina.
To him it seemed simple, too. If I loved him — as I consistently claimed — why didn’t I want to make love?
These things always look absolutely nuts in retrospect. You wonder how you managed to get through that crazy period in your life, how you could have been so wrong, how you could have set yourselves up in such a no-win situation. It looked hopeless at the time, a total impasse. Yet we succeeded in overcoming it, and one of the things I discovered in the five or six years since I started talking about our sexual renaissance in public is that this kind of sexual recovery is not as rare as I imagined. Being a writer by trade and a blabbermouth by inclination, a blog like this was inevitable.
In March of 2003 I started the first blog devoted to this subject and almost immediately, in between some positive, even enthusiastic reactions from both genders, I started getting hostile email. Sometimes very hostile email. When women wrote to me in a negative vein, it was usually an objection to my “cynicism” or “cold-bloodedness” about the subjects of sex and marriage. But when men wrote in to disagree with me they seemed to be pissed off about everything, up to and including (it seemed to me) the fact that women existed at all. As time went on I had to accept that the dominant emotion a large proportion of men were feeling when the subject of marital sex came up in the discourse was pure, unrepentant rage. You could power the Enterprise with the fury these guys were generating.
So men are angry. That’s not a very original observation, of course, but it is effectively the dark center of the problem we’re talking about in this blog. Here’s another banal observation: American intercentury culture has put some peculiarly frustrating pressures on men and women alike, so we all have unrealistic and — worse — essentially non-negotiable expectations when it comes to marriage and sex.
This is the rock: we all want Love, which we have redefined toward an unsustainable ideal, and this is the hard place: when we feel we aren’t getting Love, we seek Power, which the culture has restructured in ways none of us can any longer confidently use.
So I’m not going to blithely tell you to take Deep Cleansing Breaths and chill out. You feel what you feel. Some of us obviously feel worse than others. But even the most charmed, most actualized human being can’t feel Loved “enough.”
Still, we can sometimes work it out. With effort and introspection we can come to feel content enough to let go of desperate striving and angry scrambling for ascendancy over other people and concentrate instead on controlling the one thing we can ever really have power over: ourselves.
In this blog I’ve been telling my story, my struggle with Power and Love within myself and my marriage, with a view to helping you examine your own. I used this narrative method because the final chapter in the saga of my sexual recovery involved a special kind of re-imagining of my life story, so that in my own mind I became the odd, unusual protagonist of a romantic novel of erotic renewal. Eventually I hope you’ll be “re-writing” your own history in a similarly heroic way.
This approach is not only an outgrowth of my own experience, but has been guided by several discussions I’ve had with academics and research I’ve done in my freelance journalism that talks about the problem — if you agree that it is one — of sorting out the differences between “femininity” and “masculinity” in a world that demands recognition social equality. I can promote the goals of feminism and still recognize that there has to be an erotic difference between men and women to maintain sexual chemistry and stave off boredom (to the extent that’s possible). If you want to have more and better sex, the last thing you want to do is turn yourself into a Unisexual Being (whose penis is merely an afterthought). Ugh.
What qualities make a man sexy, what makes a woman notice and respond to him as a man? What kind of behaviors and attitudes make the difference? I believe men should have “permission” — sorry, that’s the only way I can think of to phrase the thought in this day and age — to develop their own vision of masculinity and sexiness without a lot of fainting and hanky-wringing from people who seem to fear that adult, intelligent men can’t make responsible use of the feelings, images and narratives of “heroic” art and literature.
This is also a way to help you see your marriage as a major component of your Big Story, the moral narrative of your life, and not just a vexing little contractual arrangement that you’re going to cancel if you don’t get your way (and pronto). You’ll want to strive for what I call “intentional manhood,” the kind of manhood that’s action and not just reaction. Because a man who goes through his life like a paramecium, recoiling from one stimuli and caroming off the sides of his Petri dish into another, is going to feel confused and frustrated about everything, not just his sex life.
In the old days most men had the mythology of religion to help them frame their lives, their aspirations and their everyday goals. If you had faith, you could pattern your life after Moses, Mohammed, or Mithra, follow the rules and expectations of your particular tradition, and understand your little life as a part of some Grand Design.
These days, most of us don’t have — or want — that kind of pre-packaged Big Picture. This is both bad and good. Bad in that it leaves us adrift, existentially speaking, and good because it allows us to make use of our individual human creativity and experience to create our own Big Pictures. One size does not fit all, and it’s usually best to let people work things out for themselves — as long as they can see the full reality of their circumstances and relationships.
That’s why I’ve been giving very up-front, very blunt advice/analysis (see the long list of Stories in the sidebar). And a lot of people of both sexes haven’t liked it one. little. bit. But here’s the thing: American “self-help” literature is piled high with boneless attempts by pop psychology gurus to address these issues in a soothing, sweet-talking, I’m Okay, You’re Okay kind of way. Not only is their glib, bourgeois blandola the next best thing to useless, it’s boring. So while I can understand how you might not want to hear a lot of what I’m saying (except for the sexy bits, maybe), being too careful of your feelings would be the death of my ability to be honest with you. Besides, I figure you can take it.
So what about this storied marriage of mine? I could paint it as high drama, in some kind of classical story arc, a suspenseful narrative driving to a stunning climax, followed by a satisfying denouement. Unfortunately for my artistic instincts, the truth is rather more prosaic. Our twenty-five-year marriage has been like most other people’s: a series of rising and falling waves of affection, distraction, anger and happiness. In and out of love, convinced it’s not going to work, sure it’s forever, not sure again. As the years spooled out, though, the trust and sureness grew.
But there was a moment that might qualify as a Turning Point, when I had my first glimmering of the central truths of this blog, so let me tell you about it. … continued …
My husband had a bad habit in the first decade of our marriage of going to some routine business function or some minor get-together by himself, or just stopping for some after-work drinks with the boys, and “losing all track of time.” Not only would he not come home until hours later, reeling, he wouldn’t even call to tell me where he was.
Naturally, in the fullness of time came the day when, realizing at 11 p.m. that he was out on another of these toots, I literally packed my bag, put my infant daughter in her carrier and picked up the phone to call a cab.
So why didn’t I? Why did I put the phone back into the wallset, sit down at the kitchen table and cry (raging, pounding the Formica, mopping my face with the place mats) before putting the baby back in her bed and unpacking my bag?
I realized (somehow, in the flame-edged haze of my fury) that for all my fussing and fuming about this issue, I must have somehow not been able to get my husband to really understand how deadly serious it was to me. He still didn’t Get It, and there had to be a reason for that, a reason I had to fathom. I also knew that if these incidents continued — or, heaven forfend, got worse — they were going to make me breaking-point angry again, every single time. My resentment would grow with each event, and that would increasingly poison each successive calculation of the tradeoff between staying and going. (Sound familiar?)
So I couldn’t just decide to stay; I had to figure out how to avoid wanting to leave in the future. I had to think it through, not just react in the same tired, ineffective way every time it happened. I had to figure out what was going on inside him, not just inside me. When I finally decided to use my brain on the situation instead of my furious, resentful, self-righteous emotions and — even more challenging — to allow that I might be doing (or not doing) something to make it worse, I figured it out.
He didn’t call me when he was out on these little adventures because they were expressions of his freedom to act as he damn well pleased, without explanation or excuse: Look at me, I’m Baaaaad, baby. There ain’t no jail in the territory can hold me. The last thing a man wants to do when he is making that kind of statement is to call his wife and get permission to continue being a desperado.
To me these hops off the reservation were slaps in the face, gestures of contempt and dominance. I read each one as a big “fuck you!” to to my needs and feelings. To him they were just expressions of manhood and personal autonomy. He saw my “excessive” anger about these “minor” incidents as a demand to toe the line of unnecessary marital rules, as an attempt to assert control over him.
These incidents revealed that a subterranean jockeying for Power had taken over between us, a vicious spiral of secret disappointments and unspoken demands on each other that neither of us could fulfill because if we did, we would be declared The Loser.
Realizing that ugly truth about us both — and not just reflexively blaming him for the entirety of the problem — was the beginning of my deeper understanding of many more of our issues, including the sexual one. It’s amazing what just accepting a truth of that caliber can do for your attitude and actions in a relationship. No, it didn’t happen overnight — that’s just in the movies — but as I continued with my committment to facing the truth about our power relationships I came all the way back to my husband, emotionally as well as sexually.
So why, you might be asking, since I was the one who made the first move in my own marriage, am I talking to MEN in this blog? As so many of those angry correspondents have told me, over and over again, what I need to be doing is telling women to straighten up and fly right. Women should be repeatedly reminded of the “contract” they signed when they got married, in which the first sentence is (apparently): “Give husband sex at least twice a week, whether you like it or not.” Women just need to come across with the punani on a more regular basis, and then everybody would be happy. So why (these guys cry) are you talking to me when it’s really her cold-ass selfishness that is the problem?
Because…listen carefully here…if I tell you that your marital dissatisfactions are all your wife’s fault, you are in a totally helpless position. If she is the one and only, absolutely immovable cause of all your sexual difficulties, you can do nothing to improve the situation. You might as well give up, today, this minute, and go out and get divorced.
Maybe that’s what you’ll ultimately decide to do. It’s an honest option. Sometimes wives turn out to be impossibly neurotic or situations are so Fido Uniform that there’s no hope. But if there’s a possibility of encouraging a rebirth of your wife’s sensuality and intimate affection, don’t you want to at least try it before you file the papers?
One of the useful concepts in that vast drippy body of earnest suburban psychobabble I referenced earlier is that in any situation where people are dissatisfied with the status quo, they are the ones who “own” the problem, and they are the ones who must do the most to solve it. It may feel unfair to you to have to make concessions or changes when the problem, from your point of view, is really being caused by a partner who refuses to fulfill your reasonable expectations.
But in my experience, standing on My Rights, insisting that other people admit that they are the ones who are wrong in a given situation, or deciding that they must make the changes I demand before I will change myself, has gotten me exactly nowhere (or, worse, somewhere I really didn’t want to go). This is especially true when it came to those pesky unspoken contracts, where I was the only judge of what were “reasonable” terms and conditions.
I started out the blog talking about little things that men can fix practically overnight, because sometimes that’s all that’s needed — or all a man has the stomach for. And when it comes to women and sex, “little things” — things you might consider irrelevant or ridiculous or even insulting — sometimes count much more than you might have imagined. Does it come as a surprise to you that the sort of romantic gesture many women yearn for isn’t the presentation of expensive flowers, but noticing that there’s dog hair on the rug and pulling out the vacuum — without subsequent bragging of your martyrdom or demands for gratitude?
There are some things women feel that they just can’t tell the men they love. Things they can’t say out loud, things they can’t admit to themselves or to you, and things they don’t even quite understand in their own minds. These are the secrets we’re afraid to voice, the dissatisfactions we don’t verbalize for fear of slaughtering your ego or making ourselves less desirable — or more disposable. Women might bitch and moan day and night about everything else in their lives, yet never confess the most essential things, the things their lovers really need to know.
Yeah, there were a lot of generalizations in that paragraph. I’m going to be making a lot more. Generalizing has gotten kind of a bad rap lately. People object to it when it’s their ox being gored and let it go when someone else’s is getting the shaft. But it has a long and respectable rhetorical history, for good reason. It’s true that our natural tendency to generalize can sometimes get us into logical trouble, as when (to give the classic example) we assume that because all we’ve ever seen are white swans, black ones don’t exist. But generalizing is also the only way we can “make sense” of large bodies of data that can’t realistically be considered otherwise.
While each person is an individual unlike any other and every marriage is a unique experience for its participants, I’ve been discussing a lot of things that I believe a significant number of people or marriages have in common. So let’s make a deal: when I use the terms “women” or “men” or “marriage” or any other large category, you will understand that I may not be talking about you or any other particular man or woman. Don’t take it personally. If it doesn’t apply to you and your marriage, it doesn’t apply. You don’t have to defend yourself. You especially don’t have to defend yourself with an email screed that details my failings as a woman, human being and Internet chatterbox. I believe you, okay? And anyway, why should my little feeeeemale opinion matter to a Big Strong Man like you?
So, are we cool? Excellent.
Over the last year and a half of thinking about these issues for the blog, I’ve been developing a Man’s Plan For Marital Action, and I hope you’ll come along while I flesh it out. It goes something like this:
To recover his marriage sexually (and every other way), a Man will:
1) Face facts (obviously we’re already working on that)
2) Fix “little things” first
3) Understand the emotional calculus of Love and Power in his relationship
4) Return to the basics of his own character and masculinity
5) Create his own solutions in his own context.
In the beginning of the earlier blog (reproduced in the pages on “Disgust,” “Discomfort,” etc.), I offered a few very basic practical suggestions, little things you could do right away without a lot of consideration and turmoil. Everyone would prefer to take simple, concrete actions that have a chance of succeeding (or at least improving the situation) before committing themselves to more challenging efforts. It’s perfectly okay to hope that those little things will turn everything around for you, and it’s certainly possible that they will — but don’t count on it.
The more important part of this blog was / is / will be an attempt to give you tools for drilling down to your deeper personal truths, your aquifer, the way you define yourself as an adult human of the male persuasion in today’s ambivalent and sometimes downright hostile society. To give you food for thought on that vexed bit of business, I’m advancing my own preliminary ideas about the masculine mystique.
In my view, a man — I don’t say a “real man,” because there are no fake men, only boys–
All well and good, you’re probably thinking (rolling your eyes), but didn’t I promise not to purvey tired self-help clichés like “know yourself” and “the truth will make you free”? Well, yeah, except that I am talking basics here, after all, and those apparently vapid bullet points are the chassis supporting the most relevant characteristic, to wit:
A man also
Your “masculine mythos” is essentially your personal erotic legend, the story of Manhood Your Way. As a sexually aware adult exposed to the seductions of your culture, you already have an erotic mythos, but unless you frequent certain egg-headed halls of academe, you probably haven’t given it much thought. There’s been a lot of snotty ivory tower theorizing on this concept, and many of you have (in a sense) seen the smoke rising over the ivied walls as they burn all that intellectual lumber, but the ideas can also be really useful to the ordinary guy.
But if the concepts sound like so much folkloric bullshit to you, don’t worry about it. Stick with things you can do by rote, without the cogitation. Use them or lose them as necessary.
But how do you know if your marriage is worth even that much effort? Two ways: first, determine whether there is still a reservoir of mutual good will and psychological compatibility in the non-sexual side of your relationship. On that question this is Julia Grey’s Acid Test: are you still laughing together?
Shared humor is a crucial bond. It signals fundamental, unspoken agreements between people about how the world works and how they’re functioning in it. Once a sexual problem raises its head in a marriage, your senses of humor understandably start dragging their feet, but if you can’t laugh together, ever — even if it is only at a sitcom or a movie you’re watching — you’re pretty much doomed. Down the Irreconcilable Differences river. On that Lonesome Train. Riding off into the sunset. Lost in … well, you get the picture.
The other way to determine whether there is still enough left in your marriage to work with is to figure out, honestly, how much you’re willing to do to improve things in the absence of any effort from her.
Are you willing to be the sole active partner in solving your sexual impasse, at least at first? Do you love your wife enough (or at least value the marriage enough) to let go of your notion of Your Rights for the time being and take up tasks that might be annoying, time-consuming and open-ended, all without reaping immediate “rewards”?
As you’ve probably gathered, my thoughts on this subject could be rocky going (and not just because they go interminably, like this post). This is not your second nature sort of thing, and it sometimes goes very much against the grain. Even having to consider some of these ideas pisses some men off. A lot. Worse, when/if you actually try them, you may NOT get the gratitude and Hot Wet Love you expect, especially short term.
In fact, I guarantee you’ll wonder at some point why the hell you bother.
So. If after reading all this you decide that salvaging your marital sex life is not worth the effort, that’s fine. Click out of the blog. Walk away from the computer.
Because the most important element in all this — the one crucial, non-negotiable thing you’ll need along the way — is to be genuinely, brutally, consistently honest with yourself. No denial allowed.
Still with me?
Good. Let’s go.